Child and Family Agency Bill 2013: Second Stage

I welcome the Child and Family Agency Bill. I welcome the Title in particular, which sums up the ethos of the Bill.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the introduction of the legislation, which is a continuation of the outstanding work she has done in this newly created Cabinet position in this Administration in a relatively short period. Not only has she ensured that the rights of children are constitutionally protected and enshrined for the first time following the recent referendum, but she has made other incredibly important reforms in her Department. For the first time HIQA is inspecting child protection services. The first reports have already been published, for example, in Carlow-Kilkenny. Those reports are very helpful and necessary.

The Bill involves a significant reorganisation of services. It will introduce a dedicated management team for children’s services, which is critical, and it will reduce the number of managers in the area from 32 to 17. That merits emphasis in the House. It can only be good from every perspective.

The Minister has issued revised and strengthened guidelines on Children First and got relevant Departments to publish their plans for the implementation of Children First in order that children can be better protected. This cross-departmental approach is an important initiative.

The Minister has retained universal funding for the ECCE free early education year for young children. That is critically important. A successful example of such a crèche is located next door to where I live. The children are so happy they go running in there in the morning. Such a service is important for young children. The maintenance of the funding is a significant achievement in the current climate. A total of €14 million over three years has been secured by the Minister for funding of various initiatives.

In recent years various reports were published on child care, family life and child protection. Almost all of the reports highlighted the pressing need to address the many deficiencies that are present within the system. The Children’s Research Network report, which was recently published, outlined many ways in which we could improve on the current delivery of services to children and families. One of the key recommendations of the report is the improvement in the co-ordination of services between the various agencies and individuals who work with vulnerable children and their families. Now we will have a single dedicated agency overseen by a single dedicated Department. That is what is exciting, novel and radical about the legislation.

The need for greater harmonisation and communication between the relevant agencies is a common theme running through almost every report on child protection over a long period. The Minister said, “Protecting children and supporting families are simply two sides of the same coin”. That is why I welcome the Title of the Bill. I fully agree with that sentiment. One of the main themes of this legislation is to set up a child and family agency which will strengthen our policy on child protection, as outlined in the programme for Government. Part 2, section 8 reiterates that by stating that the new agency will “strengthen and encourage effective functioning of families”.

In recent years, statistics have shown that the demand for child and family services has increased. The recent national audit on neglect highlighted alcohol as an issue in 62% of cases. Lack of educational achievement – as alluded to by the Minister in her Second Stage speech – and truancy, are an indication of neglect. It is important that those issues will come under the remit of the agency because truancy is indicative of many other problems and should ring alarm bells. It is important that a joined-up approach is taken. In many ways, problems can be attributed to the financial strain that many families find themselves under as a result of the economic crisis. That is a factor as well in the context of difficulty. There has been a 10.5% increase among young people up to the age of 17 having difficulty. The indicative factors that led to the problem and need to be addressed are a combination of alcohol, under-achievement in education and lack of education among parents, and truancy. In light of that, there is all the more reason to ensure we not only have a strong service, but that we have a socially responsible service.

While we must face up to the fact that there are many families who may be fractured emotionally and physically, nevertheless we cannot deny that many families are genuinely doing the best for their children. That must be recognised and supported where possible. As the Minister herself noted, the family is the natural and fundamental unit in society and what affects the parent, affects the child.
Barnardos, the excellent supportive agency for children, has expressed concern about the level of emphasis on prevention and early intervention. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed this concern and reassured people when replying, as we want to ensure the emphasis is on the earliest intervention and support with a view to maintaining the family unit and keeping children where they should be.

However, we cannot shy away from the fact that the best interests of the child must always be our main concern, yet may not always be best met within the family unit. Section 9 enshrines this fact in law. It ensures that, when the new agency is making large or small decisions, regard will always be had of the best interests and views of the child.

The Minister stated that the family resource centres would continue to play an important role in the new child and family support agency and in the development of integrated community-based models for early intervention and family support, as envisaged in the children’s referendum. I welcome this important provision. The service that the local family resource centres play within our communities is invaluable and I am glad to hear their role will not be diminished.

The new child and family agency will employ up to 4,000 staff and, despite concerns expressed on the Opposition benches, will have a budget of €600 million. It will remove responsibility for child protection from the HSE, ensuring we have a separate agency solely dedicated to children at risk and their families. It will bring together a myriad of services, housing them under one roof. This will ensure a clear line of sight for the delivery of child protection and the Minister will have responsibility. I am heartened to know that she will be actively involved in setting targets and guidelines and in framing policy before the agency devises corporate strategies and annual business plans. The HSE became a scapegoat for all ills and a decoy for political responsibility. The Minister will ensure this situation will not be replicated.

The agency will cover areas like child welfare, protection services, existing family support agencies and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Importantly, it will be responsible for preschool inspections, for the 6,200 children in care, for the 1,500 young people in receipt of after-care and for the 40,000 in difficulty who are referred annually.

Accountability is important. It should be enshrined in the legislation. Political accountability will still rest with the Minister, who will be answerable to the House. Every year, she will set targets and there will be a policy perspective. I am confident the agency will work and that this is the correct approach. Together with the constitutional amendment last year, the very establishment of the agency gives a primacy to children’s rights and to the care of children and families that did not previously obtain. The agency’s very existence sends a signal, as does the line of responsibility all the way to the Minister. Her accountability to the House and the people will be critical. The agency will bring all of the services together in a sharper and more focused way, making for a better service for children.

Ultimately, this is a question of the welfare of children and their families, of trying to keep family units together and of trying to maintain a quality of life for all. I congratulate the Minister on this welcome legislation and I hope we will all be proud of its outputs.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website